Here is Part 1 of a fantastic 5-part series by our contributing writer Michal Pawlus, describing in more detail the concession to conquer the Maya Yucatan. You can find the full series linked below.
Concession to Conquer the Yucatan: Incomprehensible Languages (Part 1)
Antonio de Ciudad Real wrote in 1588 that when reaching Yucatan they asked the local ruler what the name of this place was, but he did not understand what the Spanish were saying, so he answered uic athan in his language, which meant what do you speak, we do not understand you. So the Spaniards considered this place to be called the Yucatan.
This name is a symbol of a new chapter in the history of this region and the emergence of a new identity on the peninsula. The beginning of the period of political and religious struggle on the peninsula and the feeling of its separateness from Mexico and attempts to create one’s own state. An example would be the seasonal state of the Republic of Yucatan.
This series of articles will focus on the “last days of the Mayans” during the Spanish conquest of the Yucatan, and their effects.
Concession to Conquer the Yucatan is a Pentalogy that has the following five parts:
1. Concession to Conquer the Yucatan: Incomprehensible Language (We are here)
2. Concession to Conquer the Yucatan: People called Yucatecos
3. Concession to Conquer the Yucatan: Interrogation of Faith
4. Concession to Conquer the Yucatan: Standard of the Maya people
5. Concession to Conquer the Yucatan: Green Jaguar
Battle for Wet Water
The expectations of Europeans and what they could have proved to be true during the conquests of Cuba and the Caribbean. The indigenous people of these lands were technologically primitive – their only advantage against the Spaniards was the large population, but that changed quickly when the natives began to die en masse due to the diseases brought from Europe.
The image of primitive natives with whom the Spaniards had contact in the Caribbean, gave them self-confidence and increased their enthusiasm for conquests in search of wealth, fame, and slaves.
Cuba is the largest island in the Caribbean and has a central location, so it is no wonder that it has become the main base for further Spanish expansion. In 1511, the first Spanish settlement was founded by Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar at Baracoa. Other settlements soon followed, including San Cristobal de la Habana (Havana), founded in 1515, which later became the capital. Adventurers began to come to the Caribbean estates, who saw great opportunities in the lands where the administration was just being organized and where there was a possibility of rapid social advancement, where the poor man prayed to become Lord.
This situation was similar to the Crusades in which all of Europe was involved and which were especially important for Christians on the Iberian Peninsula because it was the Iberian Peninsula that was their ‘Jerusalem’.
Cross states can be considered a European overseas condominium. In the Middle Ages, the Levant was a rich area where trade routes converged. Christianization played an important role, but for the common man, the most important thing was the possibility of becoming a poor rich, a peasant to a lord, and forgiveness of sins for his merits.
Of course, not everyone succeeded in it, but “The Crusade Dream” was alive at that time among the European population. An example of a successful man during the Crusades is Baldwin I of Boulogne, who persuaded the ruler of Edessa Thoros to adopt him as a son and heir. He was soon murdered under mysterious circumstances and Baldwin I seized power. The Crusader States show on a smaller scale what could be observed during the conquests of the Americas. The Renaissance society of Europe that was born in the time of Columbus was steeped in these stories and historical examples, so it is no wonder that Spanish soldiers, adventurers, and the rest of society saw similar opportunities in exploring the new world.
Twenty-four-year-old Bernal Diaz del Castillo, a distant relative of the Governor of Cuba Diego Velázquez, saw the prospects of the new world.
At first, he hoped that Cuba would provide him with the opportunity to achieve his goals, but after a while, it became obvious to him that he had to look for new territories that were not yet under the European administration. Together with a hundred other people, he bought two caravels and a brigandine. Diego Velásquez provided the expedition with provisions and a supply of trinkets for replacement. He set out under the command of the famous captain Francisco Hernández de Córdob and his pilot was the experienced Antón de Alaminos, who accompanied Columbus on his last journey.
The ships kept their course to the west. After twelve days of sailing, the small fleet left the known waters, but Alaminos continued to hold on to the setting sun, “knowing nothing of the depth of the water, the currents, or the wind that would normally prevail at this latitude.” Then came two days and two nights of a storm.
After nine days, they reached the coast of the Yucatán Peninsula.
They saw the Grand Misto which they called “el Gran Cairo” (Greater Cairo) because of its size and the white pyramids. Ten native boats came to greet the Spaniards, they stormed the flagship without any fear. The Spaniards noticed that the natives were different from those they saw in the Caribbean, they were more dressed up and it was obvious that they were more advanced, as exemplified by their urban lifestyle and monumental buildings. The Spaniards gave them bread and bacon and strings of glass beads. The next day the natives returned and urged the Spaniards to go ashore and go to the city. Of course, the conversation took place in sign language, and the Spaniards could only read the intentions of tibers from their facial expressions and gestures.
The Spaniards agreed to the natives’ offer and followed them into the city.
The chief of the natives pointed to the misto and said “cones catoche, cones catoche” (come to our houses). They followed the natives until the chief shouted, and the native warriors, with quilted cotton armor, armed with stones, bows and arrows and studded lances flint, they jumped out of hiding and attacked, and the first flight of arrows injured thirteen Spaniards.
The Spaniards managed to regroup and fend off an attack they did not expect.
Why did the natives pretend to be friends and then attack the Spaniards?
The answer to this question may be the Spanish activities in the Caribbean.
Probably the boats of the Caribbean natives came into contact with the Mayans of the Yucatan and told them about the foreigners. Six years earlier, a group of Spanish shipwrecked people had drifted on this Yucatan coast. The natives had more information about the Spaniards than the Spaniards about them – they knew about the Spanish intentions and conquests. The attack of the natives on the Spaniards was preventive, and the form of ambush was a favorite tactic of the Mesoamerican peoples.
The Spaniards withdrew from Catoche in a hurry, and their biggest problem was water.
The barrels they bought in Cuba started to leak, which could have been caused by poor purchases and poor availability of quality goods in Cuba. The Spaniards saw a stream of drinking water near the town of Campeche which they called San Lazaro. They were afraid to go ashore, but replenishing the water supplies was worth the risk.
The people of Campeche came out to greet the Spaniards.
The natives showed no signs of hostility. Apparently, they tried to ask the Hishans if they were Castilians, which was the Spanish term at the time, and is evidence that the Mayan peoples had information about foreigners. The Spaniards did not want to show fear, so they marched with the natives to their city, but this time they were fully armed and alert.
There was no attack from the natives, but neither did they have friendly intentions.
They led the Spaniards to an altar covered with clotted blood. Then the natives, dressed in torn cloaks and carrying lots of reeds, walked forward, laid their reeds in front of the Spaniards, and withdrew. They were followed by two groups of fully armed warriors. Ten men quickly emerged from one of the temples. Their long white cloaks fell right over their feet, but it was their hair that attracted the attention of the Spaniards because it was tangled and covered with dried blood. They walked forward through the silent crowd, waving incense burners, using this display to convey to the Spaniards that they were to leave before the reed piles were destroyed. They threw the fire into the pyre, turned, and returned to the temple.
It was also then that the Spaniards heard the whistle of Mayan warriors for the first time during the attack. But no attack came.
Despite the whistling, despite the pounding of drums, and the rumbling groan of the trumpets in their shells, the warriors held their ranks. The Spaniards left Campeche but had to refill their water supplies again. They went ashore again to replenish supplies, which were very close to the big city, perhaps the experience with the Campeche gave them hope that in other cities, the Mayans, despite their dislike of foreigners, would not attack the Spaniards and allow them to refill water barrels.
A squad of warriors marched towards the Spaniards. They made the Spanish answer the same question they heard in Campeche – Are they Castilian? The night quickly fell which surprised the Spaniards – they were afraid that when they boarded, they might be attacked by Mayan warriors who hid nearby. They didn’t make a decision all night, maybe because they hoped that the natives would not attack like in Campeche, and in the morning there would be more favorable conditions to defend themselves in the event of an attack.
At dawn, a great army of Maya arrived on the beaches and joined with those who had previously watched the Spaniards.
The Spaniards were attacked and during the first rain of arrows, stones, and darts eighty of them were injured. During the battle, they were all injured, including Captain Cordoba. The Spaniards broke into the direction of the shore where their ships were and were desperately trying to get onto the ships. Over fifty Spaniards were not lost and all the others were injured, five died.
The casualties were too great to continue the expedition, so two ships returned to Cuba, one brigantine ship was abandoned, and there were not enough men for this ship.
Captain Francisco Hernandes de Córdoba died ten days after his return. “This expedition consumed all our meager supplies; as poor people we returned to Cuba, all in debt and covered with wounds; fifty-seven died …“. Before Cordoba’s death, he wrote a letter to Governor Velasquez focusing on the expedition’s achievements. Despite the fact that the expedition was a financial disaster, the achievement of the expedition was “prospects for the future“.
The expedition reached the Yucatán Peninsula and surveyed the southern and western shores of the peninsula for some 700 kilometers.
Cordoba described great and populous cities rich in gold. Profit was the first purpose for which the conquistadors risked living in the new world, then there are factors such as status, fame, freedom, and religion.
Why did gold influence people’s imaginations so much?
During the Crusades, the knights were also driven by profit, but the trade balance with the Levant was negative. Mainly raw materials and luxury items were imported to Europe. Silver, wood, and slaves were exported, causing silver to flee Europe. Therefore, other luxury goods were the prey of the Crusaders. In America, gold was unimaginable to those Europeans, and that was the reason why they so craved gold, which for Indians had less value due to their greater prevalence. They wanted gold not because it was precious, but because it was precious and readily available. The Vikings had the same motivation, but the Spaniards believed more in their abilities due to the superiority of military technology.
In January 1518, Velasquez sent a new expedition towards the Yucatan.
This time, the expedition was sponsored by influential people from Cuba. Four ships with Commander Juan de Grijalva, who had 240 men under his command. The potential success of the expedition gave the captains and founders claims to new territories. As the conquerors, they had the privilege of becoming governors of new provinces in the future. The purpose of the expedition was to explore new territory, so Juana de Grijalvy had to avoid conflicts, and he could not establish settlements.
The fleet sailed along the Gulf of Ascensión, where they saw many large cities.
They then turned back to Campeche where he initially tried to negotiate water. Negotiations dragged on. Impatient Hispanics used a cannon against the natives, which caused panic among them, and they left the city where the Spaniards had entered.
During the next stop in Champot, there was a skirmish which the Spaniards won. Then the Grijalva will sail towards the Tabasco River, where the greater Mayan forces have concentrated.
Grijalva did not want to provoke or fight the natives unnecessarily, to which his subordinates urged him, who wanted to take revenge for the defeat of the previous expedition.
Grijalva used his common sense and did not want to jeopardize the expedition.
He offered the Mayans a trade exchange which they accepted. They probably heard about the strong weapons of the Spaniards, which were cannons, and they did not want to escalate the conflict anymore. The Tbylcy offered a few trinkets whose value was estimated at over 200 pesos. The Spaniards also heard of a gold-rich land ruled by the ruler Moctezuma and inhabited by a people called the Mexicas.
Grijalva returned to Cuba, where the next expedition under the command of Hernan Cortes was already prepared.
Cortes swam to the Aztec dominions, and it turned out that these areas were much more favorable to potential conquest than the hostile Yucatan coast.
Zim Cortes, who flew to the Aztec kingdom, stopped on the island of Cozumel. There he found out about two Spaniards who had crashed in the Yucatan coast a few years earlier. Cortes managed to negotiate the release of one of them, Gerónimo de Aguilar. He told about the shipwreck in 1511 in which a handful of Spaniards survived. All the Spaniards except him and Gonzalo Guerrero were sacrificed. Aguilar said that he was saved thanks to the strength of his faith, which earned him the respect of the local leader. They were to be forced into a war against other Mayan tribes. In recognition of his bravery and merits, Guerrero was appointed leader (nakom) and received an offer to marry the daughter of one of the dignitaries. Guerrero underwent an initiation ceremony (caputzihil), tattooed his body, and pierced his ears.
It was thanks to these Spaniards that the Maya knew a lot about the new arrivals, Gerónimo de Aguilar and Gonzalo Guerrero organized the battles against Cordoba.
The Spaniards did not trust Gerónimo de Aguilar, who lived among the pagans, it is also a common practice in intelligence, they do not trust spies who have stayed in enemy territory for quite a long time. Because they could be recruited, which was the case with Gonzalo Guerrero.
Why did Guerrero assimilate and fight with the Mayans against his countrymen for the rest of his life?
He died in 1534, 1535, or 1536 when the tattooed body of a white man was found among dead Indians after a skirmish in Honduras south of the Yucatan. The simplest answer is that he wanted to live, but all this time he could try to get back to his own. Had he pretended, and his intentions could have been exposed by the Maya. He gained a lot among the Maya and raised his social status. Another reason may be the Mayan spiritual practices. He may have been introduced by the Mayan Priests into altered states of consciousness, which could explain his involvement with the Mayan community. The reason may have been the attractiveness of the exotic religion he had experienced.
The Spaniards focused on the expansion in Mexico, but the effects were felt on the Yucatan.
The collapse of the trade between the Maya and Aztecs, the epidemic of smallpox, and the stories of the Spanish conquests in the Valley of Mexico. The conquest of Mexico only delayed the Spanish expansions into the Yucatan and gave the Spaniards a lot of experience that the Mayans lacked this time.
Battle for Dry Land
After defeating the Aztecs, the Spaniards turned their eyes to the Yucatan again. Cortes’s conquests ignited the imaginations of the conquistadors for the opportunities of the new world.
At the end of 1526, Francisco de Montejo, who had served as a captain in the Grijalva and Cortés expeditions, was granted the privilege of the Crown by the Crown to pacify the Yucatan Peninsula. Montejo had four ships, cannons, excellent small arms, horses, supplies of meat, oil, wine, vinegar, and biscuits. He recruited a surgeon, two pharmacists, three Carmelite clergymen, and several Catalan merchants, along with goods to trade with the Indians.
The expedition set off to Cozumel, and then they sailed to the mainland near the village of Xelha, where Montejo founded the settlement of Salamanca de Xelfa, in honor of the Spanish Salamanca where he was born.
The settlement was hungry, and the Spaniards could not count on food supplies from friendly natives, as during the conquest of the Aztecs. Stocks ran out quickly, and the Spanish expeditions to nearby towns did not find enough food. Montejo, imitating Cortes, burned his ships. This bold action aided the expedition as the males slowly grew over the months experienced and have learned to survive in this hostile terrain.
After some time, a ship with supplies approached them, which allowed Montejo to make expeditions south to the city of Chetumal, where he made contact with Gonzalo Guerrero, they both exchanged correspondence.
Montejo urged Guerrero not to be influenced by the devil, to remember the Savior Jesus Christ, and to come to them on the ship. In response, Guerrero wrote that he remembers God, is a friend of the Spaniards, but cannot return because he is a captive. Guerrero did not write the truth, his actions indicated that he was free and devoted to the Maya. It was probably a political move, and he did not want to end his relationship with Spain due to Spanish success in the region. He was actively involved in the war against the Spaniards, but if he were captured he could defend himself with the notion that he was a slave. His diplomatic response gave him a chance to be a link between the Spanish and the Mayans in the future.
Montejo in 1529-1534 explored a large part of the peninsula from Campeche to Chetumal.
Only the eastern and southern interior remained largely unexplored. Montejo learned that there are no big and wealthy cities in the inland, because, just like the Aztecs, they were not able to feed a large population, in the Mexico Valley it was possible thanks to the possibilities offered by Lake Texcoco.
The size of the Mayan cities was sometimes overestimated because they were more extensive compared to European cities and not all houses were inhabited. Mayans often left the apartment after the death and burial (usually under the floor) of the head of the family. The city of Champoton had 8,000 houses and Campeche 2,000 houses, but their urbanization might have suggested to the Spaniards that they are much larger.
The Spaniards tried to establish the social and political structure on which the Maya were based.
They noted that, unlike the Aztecs, the Maya did not have a single dominant political organism. In the post-classical middle period, Mayapan supremacy in the Yucatan ended, and no other city-state managed to dominate the peninsula.
The Maya felt like one nation, they spoke one language, but their political structure was very dispersed. Each city-state had its own ruler, sometimes they were dependent on other regional rulers or created local patriotism and individuality.
The politically fragmented Yucatans can be compared to Germany, which until the nineteenth century was divided into dozens of smaller principalities and kingdoms or the Japanese shogunate.
The boundaries of local states were not clearly established, making it difficult for the Spaniards to clearly define against whom they are taking action.
The territory of the Yucatán Peninsula was not conducive to expansion, there are no lakes, rivers, and streams in the northern and central parts of the peninsula. The sources of freshwater were entrances to underground flooded caves. Lowland coast, accumulative, locally low cliffs. Almost the entire surface is covered by plains, and to the south, Maya mountains.
Gold, or the oil of the Spanish expansion, was not abundant among the Maya, so looting expeditions made no sense. When the Spaniards were sure that they would not find much wealth, their motivation to conquer was not too strong. Large loss of lives and unfriendly terrain additionally discouraged.
In August 1534, Montejo informed the king that he was wrong about the treasures of Yucatan.
By 1535, there were no more Spaniards on the peninsula.
While later a small group under Montejo’s orders held in Campeche, it was not until 1540 that they attacked the peninsula again. They were Spaniards who knew there were no precious metals on the peninsula but had missed opportunities to participate in other oppressive expeditions. They had hoped for other valuable loot such as slaves, clothes, honey, wax, cocoa. At that time, the peninsula was engulfed by a drought that caused famine in the Yucatan.
Maya from Maya Xiju wanted to ask the gods for rain. For this, they had to go on a pilgrimage through the territory of their enemies Cocom to the city of Cenote.
They were guaranteed a safe march, which was broken. Xiu was attacked, this incident led to war and the escalation of the conflict in hard times, but this situation was very favorable for the Spanish who were just waiting for it.
After this incident, Xiu became allies of the Spaniards and supported their expansion.
Spaniards began to conduct an active policy in the region based on the creation of permanent settlements and alliances. Within twelve months, the northern and western provinces were pacified. Montejo’s son fought a skirmish at Chichen Itza, lost 150, the remaining hundred Spaniards managed to escape and join forces with Montejo near Tiho. After a great battle in which a coalition of 60,000 warriors participated.
The misto Merida was founded on January 6, 1542. Merida was founded on the site of the Native City of Tiho with only 200 houses, colossal ruins and remnants of surprising and beautiful buildings, and about a thousand malnourished indigenous people.
The difficult economic situation meant that the Maya were on the defensive.
Why were the Maya were unable to continue to resist the attacks of the conquistadors, whose groups did not exceed 400 people?
The Mayans were unable to reunite and gather such a large army. The resistance against the Spaniards was mainly regional and would take over a guerrilla form, efforts were made to make life difficult for foreigners.
You can talk about the technological superiority of the Spaniards, the cultural difference, and the famine in the Yucatan. When the first contact between the Spaniards and the Maya took place, the Yucatan was not hungry, the Mayans had more information about the Spaniards than the Spaniards about the Maya, the Spaniards could count on their native allies, and the Yucatan area was unfavorable for the first conquistadors.
The Maya had all the strengths, despite the political fragmentation. Any city-state would be able to fend off an attack by a group of Spaniards, with the entire Yucatan being able to form a coalition just like in Tiho. The Maya in the Yucatan hoped that the Spaniards would be discouraged by further conquests, maybe they hoped that the only thing the Spaniards wanted was gold, but Europe learned about pagan overseas.
Christian Europe would not leave the Maya alone, even if they lived in the desert, without any treasures.
The Maya were unable and determined to counterattack the Spanish settlements in the Caribbean. They were waiting at home for the Spaniards who were expanding settlements and supply lines in the Caribbean estates. The smallpox epidemic that followed in the Yucatan wrecked any Maya chances of strong resistance because they no longer had the manpower to fight foreigners.
In 1517, the city of Champoton had about 8,000 houses, and in 1547, the population of this city was 2,000 people. Of the 8,000,000 people who lived in the Yucatan before the epidemic, 250,000 were left by the end of the conquests.
Such events in Mesoamerica and the favorable conditions of conquest, which were created by nature and regional political structures, only strengthened the Spaniards in the belief that the conquest of Mesoamerica was their sacred mission.
This is the end of Part One in the Concession to Conquer the Yucatan series.
Thank you for reading this article, I encourage you to comment and share your own thoughts on the issues raised in this article. Please read the next article in this series, People called Yucatecos – the chapters in this article are Subjects of the Crown and, Yucatan and New Orders. Below are a few introductory sentences.
After the conquest of the Yucatan, the conquistadors began to settle in the conquered territories. Conquistadors whose main motivation was to earn money (such as economic emigrants) and return to Spain to live well, but not every conquistador amassed treasures for a prosperous life in Europe. In Mesoamerica, the conquistadors were more independent of the central government, they had encomiendas. But at the beginning of colonization in the new world there was a shortage of European goods, moreover, the new colonies were a dangerous place for the conquistadors and settlers, there was a risk of new revolts of the indigenous people and new dangerous species of animals…
Best regards for all readers,
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Full Concession to Conquer the Yucatan Series:
Part 4: Standard of the Maya people (still coming)
Part 5: Green Jaguar (still coming)
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